January 27, 2014

Supreme Court Decides Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

On January 27, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper, No. 12-315, holding that the immunity exception under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which grants airlines and their employees immunity against civil liability for reporting suspicious behavior, may not be denied to materially true statements.

William Hoeper was a pilot for Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation who reacted angrily after repeatedly failing required simulator training. An Air Wisconsin manager booked Hoeper on a flight from the test location to Hoeper's home in Denver, and then consulted with other airline officials and determined that Hoeper's behavior warranted termination. Given Hoeper's outburst, his impending termination, the history of assaults by disgruntled airline employees, and the chance that he might be armed, the airline decided to notify the Transportation Security Administra­tion (TSA) of the situation.

During the call to TSA, the manager stated that Hoeper "may be armed," that the airline was "concerned about his mental stability and the whereabouts of his firearm," and that an "[u]nstable pilot…was terminated today." In response, the TSA removed Hoeper from the plane, searched him, and questioned him about the location of his gun. Hoeper eventually boarded a later flight, and Air Wisconsin fired him the next day.

Hoeper sued Air Wisconsin for defamation in Colorado state court. Air Wisconsin moved for summary judgment and later for a directed verdict, relying on ATSA immunity and arguing that the ATSA's two exceptions to immunity—where such disclosure is "made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading" or "made with reckless disre­gard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure"—did not apply. The trial court denied the motions and submitted the ATSA immunity ques­tion to the jury, which returned a verdict for Hoeper. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed, assuming that true statements do not qualify for ATSA immunity if they are made recklessly, and denied Air Wisconsin immunity.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that ATSA immunity may not be denied absent a determination that the disclosure was materially false. The Court emphasized that the ATSA immunity exception is "patterned" after the actual malice standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964), which requires material falsity and does not cover materially true statements made recklessly. Because the material falsity requirement was "settled" when Congress enacted the ATSA, the Court presumed that "Congress meant to adopt the material falsity requirement when it incorporated the actual malice standard into the ATSA immunity exception." The Court also noted that denying immunity for substantially true reports would defeat the pur­pose of ATSA immunity: "to ensure that air carriers and their employ­ees would not hesitate to provide the TSA with the information it needed." Applying the proper material falsity analysis, the Court concluded that Air Wisconsin was en­titled to immunity as a matter of law.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito joined, and in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kagan joined in part. Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justices Thomas and Kagan joined.

Download the Opinion of the Court

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